I had the opportunity this week to participate in a summit run by the Chancellor of the State University of New York on Community Colleges and the Future of New York’s Workforce.
The participants came from both the community colleges and industry. As a group, they represented some of the smartest and most dedicated folks trying to improve the workforce.
The special focus was on STEM and especially advanced manufacturing, represented in New York by the photovoltaic, optics, and fab foundry industries, among others.
Some key takeaways:
- While particular job training is useful, the community colleges should not go too far in the extreme and essentially become a vocational education vehicle. The private sector executives noted that it is hard for businesses to predict the next big trend and community college officials are likely to do worse than business executives – so ensure that more general STEM skills and critical thinking are also taught. Many business executives would also admit that their companies are subject to tremendous short-term pressures that should not necessarily overwhelm the long-term foundation that colleges need to provide.
- (When I used to speak to college students about the software industry, I would tell them that the most important things they could learn were not any particular computer language, but how to think clearly and how to learn on their on own.)
- The economy is global, so the training of students has to include more than a local aspect. Chancellor Zimpher, for example, highlighted the great value of coop working opportunities for students – more than 90% of coop students get jobs, a much higher rate than for others. But she also noted that these coop opportunities could and should take place outside the US.
- A good community college will encourage companies – both large and small – to expand nearby. For example, one company with factories in New York and Georgia decided to expand dramatically in New York because of its better community college system.
- The jobs out there are more than what is traditionally thought of as STEM-based jobs. There is a large need for welders and auto mechanics, both of which apparently are now computer-based jobs.
What I didn’t hear was also important:
- How does this scale? The employers are saying they have many job openings, but are not finding the people with the right skills. The public officials and educators also say that workers will need lifelong learning, not just education when during their childhood or even a once in a lifetime retraining as middle aged adults. In the knowledge economy of this century, learning is a continuing necessity. So how can community colleges help provide this education in a cost-effective manner? It’s worth noting that, while community colleges are less expensive than other kinds of higher education, as they currently operate, they may be too expensive to meet this demand.
- What about innovation? Many economists and public officials point out that the key to 21st century economic growth will be innovation. Those people, places and companies that can innovate will be the ones that generate growth. While there is lots of talk about training on specific existing skills, what about helping students to enhance their creative, their innovation skills?
Unless community colleges also fully address these two questions, their well-intentioned plans and diligent efforts will be undermined.
© 2013 Norman Jacknis